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The Path Not Chosen: Effective Succession Planning

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Hillary Knepper and Patricia Dwyer
February 7, 2017

Ambiguity is the nature of municipal leadership. Whether it is a recession, political shifts, weather or other pivotal factors, municipal leadership is fraught with ambiguity. This ambiguity is no less slippery than when we consider significant changes in administrative leadership. Indeed, for many of us in public service, when our thoughts turn to succession planning, two old adages come to mind: “The best laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry,” or a more melodious refrain like, “Que sera, sera.”

As managers, we toil in the here and now. Confronting the need to plan for the continuity of services or operations is an exercise filled with angst. It is a particularly challenging task for managers of municipal corporations, because our ability to employ and deploy key personnel is constrained by politics, finances, bureaucracy and law.

Indeed, municipalities are complex organizations. As political entities they are physically constrained by their locations and natural environment. Tknepperheir governance is influenced by externalities, cultural attributes, capacities and fragile alliances. However, as corporations, they are “going concerns”. It is this point which compels governing bodies to develop a succession plan for continuity, and for management of its human resources, operations and assets. As difficult as it may be, it is frankly inexcusable and borderline malfeasant to forego succession planning. As leaders, we are expected to proactively prepare our organizations to respond to the challenges of tomorrow.

Succession Planning 101

Succession planning creates the right “path” for orderly transitions which arise due to foreseeable events such as retirement, attrition or reorganization. Yet there are traditional barriers which may divert us from successfully creating this “path,” such as resource availability, structural constraints (like time frames or personnel systems) and perception of need, according to Elizabeth Fredericksen in a 2010 State and Local Government Review article, “When the Music Stops: Succession Is More Than Filling Seats”.

For managers, a succession plan should be a proactive and responsive management tool. From the vantage of a forked road, failure to create the right “path” would lead you down a worrisome rabbit hole known as crisis management. This is not a path you’ll enjoy traveling. Crisis management, while essential to organizational survival, is reactive, not proactive. During a crisis, your organization’s resources are expended to confront and end threats to its health, safety and welfare. Failing to undertake succession planning can expose your community to preventable crises including adverse risks to reputation, valuation and culture.

Establishing the Right Path: Succession Planning for Today

So, as a leader, would you rather be responsive or reactionary? Good answer! We’ve developed a simple blueprint to guide your governing body, and you, along the proper path toward a framework for decisions involving succession planning. These five steps should assure your organization is poised to effectively handle those critical leadership transitions.

  • Analyze: Start by analyzing your organizational chart. Assess and critically evaluate your municipality’s existing organizational structure. It is right-sized? Is it sustainable? Is it adaptable? Does something need to change?
  • Identify key positions: Identify key, mission-critical positions within your organization. Don’t confuse this with identifying your key people. Determine what positions, when vacated, would require immediate action.
  • Determine competencies: Helton and Jackson highlight key elements of Pennsylvania succession planning in their article. They stress the importance of identifying competencies, understanding competency gaps and creating developmental opportunities to improve retention and growth of current and new employees to assure smoother transitions.
  • Reach consensus: How will your organization respond to vacancies? Who has the authority to fill the vacancies? Are you able to develop your employees and create the capacity to fill this vacancy from within the organization? If so, should you (and how)? If you determine you cannot or should not fill from within, identify and explore options such as intergovernmental solutions, internal restructuring or outsourcing.
  • Mentoring is imperative! According to T. Zane Reeves, in a 2010 State and Local Government Review article, titled, “Mentoring Programs in Succession Planning”, mentoring for succession planning in municipal government is challenged by revenue restrictions and economic downturns yet it remains a critical method for smooth successions.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, as Mkhabela and Chikandiwa note in their article, the creation of a succession plan, vital though it may be, is only as good as the implementation. Step 1: Create your succession plan. Step 2: Establish appropriate human resources systems to achieve the succession plan.

In keeping with best practices and to reduce some ambiguity, you should submit your succession plan once a year to your governing board for review and adoption. You’ll want assurances your policy reflects your current political environment, and the governing board is informed and aligned on this important policy statement. Navigating through a dark woods is challenging, but informing your governing body should go a long way to staying on the right path.


Authors: Hillary J. Knepper, PhD, MPA, Associate Professor, Chair, Department of Public Administration, Pace University [email protected] and Patricia Dwyer, MPA, MS in Accounting, Village Administrator, Pleasantville, N.Y. [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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